From the FMS Global and UK News Desk of Jeanne Hambleton
Courtesy of WebMD – Feature from “Good Housekeeping” Magazine USA
By Catherine Guthrie
Simple, field-tested strategies you can use right now
You know what stress looks like: The sun rises; so do you. Your child suddenly remembers that he needs cupcakes for the school party. The dog has gotten sick in the living room. Your spouse leaves for work in a huff after a pre-breakfast tiff over finances. You leave for work without a report that’s due today. You double back, grab it from the kitchen counter, trip over an Everest of laundry — must we go on?
You know what stress feels like: Your pulse quickens, your lungs squeeze shut, your ears ring, and you wonder if this is the time your head actually explodes. Sensing anxiety overload, your brain orders up a chemical surge that makes your blood vessels narrow, heart race, blood pressure rise, and muscles tighten. Your body is mobilizing to deal with threat.
Good plan, nature! But you were not meant to stay on red alert forever. Prolonged stress leads to health problems. High levels of the stress hormone cortisol are associated with heart disease and cancer; stress has also been linked to gastrointestinal problems, eczema, asthma, and depression.
And you probably already know what is involved in long-term, big-commitment stress reduction: physical changes (exercising, eating right, getting plenty of sleep); organizational changes (planning ahead, divvying up chores equitably); attitude changes (letting go of what you cannot control, for starters); and relationship changes (finding ways to talk through, directly and respectfully, the problems that are the sources of anxiety). All of these transformations are definitely worth the effort.
But here is what you may not know: Recent studies have suggested six new stress reducers — research-tested, rather surprising, and relatively simple. You can ease these strategies into your life right now.
Strategy 1: Smooch spontaneously
“When I come home from a hard day at work and kiss my husband, the bad stuff does not seem to matter anymore,” says Cheryl Kennedy Henderson, 47, an accountant in Knoxville, TN.
Science says she is on to something. A recent study of 2,000 couples showed that those who kiss only during lovemaking are eight times more likely to report suffering from stress and depression than those who frequently kiss on the spur of the moment. Study leader Laura Berman, Ph.D., an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry and ob-gyn at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine, explains why: “Kissing relieves stress by creating a sense of connectedness, which releases endorphins, the chemicals that counteract stress and depression.”
Strategy 2: Take the cuddle cure
More good news from the annals of affection: Researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill recently found that holding hands and hugging can measurably reduce stress. Fifty couples were asked to hold hands for 10 minutes, then hug for 20 seconds. A second group of 85 people rested quietly, not touching their significant others. Researchers then asked people in both groups to talk about a past event that left them angry or anxious. Those who had not cuddled before revisiting the past exhibited signs of elevated heart rate and blood pressure. But couples who had hugged and held hands were not nearly as ruffled.
“The gentle pressure of a hug can stimulate nerve endings under the skin that send calming messages to the brain and slow the release of cortisol,” explains Tiffany Field, Ph.D., director of the University of Miami Medical School’s Touch Research Institute. And if your honey is not on hand? Field says other studies have found that a hug from a friend or a professional massage can also help banish tension.
Strategy 3: Lash out less
You may have already concluded what a series of studies has confirmed: When married couples argue, men are more likely than women to withdraw — and this frustrates their wives. The studies also revealed something not as obvious. The way a woman deals with frustration during hostile arguments can measurably affect her stress load, and thus her physical health.
Women who responded to their husbands with verbal hostility showed elevated stress-hormone levels during arguments and for hours afterward. Their mates did not show these physical signs of stress, says Janice Kiecolt-Glaser, Ph.D., professor of psychiatry at Ohio State University College of Medicine and a member of the research team. Prolonged surges of stress hormones can damage the immune system, she notes.
One serious physical consequence of a hostile fighting style was discovered last year by researchers at the University of Utah, who found that wives who lashed out at their husbands during disagreements had twice as much coronary artery calcification, a sign of heart disease, as wives who stayed calm. Hostile husbands were not affected.
“Conflict is not necessarily bad,” says Kiecolt-Glaser. “It is the way couples disagree that affects health.” Her advice: Concentrate on the issue at hand and forget about getting even; drop the sarcasm and name-calling. “Generally it is best to try to keep the emotional temperature as low as possible,” she says. “The more heated the words or tone of voice, the harder it is for husbands and wives to hear each other. If necessary, take a deep breath and respectfully end the conversation, promising to talk about the situation later, when you are calmer.”
Strategy 4: Put the kettle on
Tea is the most popular beverage in the world (after water); even coffee-worshipping Americans guzzle more than 2 billion gallons of tea a year. Part of the appeal may be its tension-taming powers. In a recent study, scientists at University College London noted that people who drank black tea four times a day for six weeks had lower levels of cortisol after a stressful task than those who drank a caffeinated fruit beverage.
Research also shows that a substance in green tea leaves, L-Theanine, may shift brain wave activity from the beta waves that accompany anxiety to the alpha waves associated with relaxation. Maxine Friedman, 43, of New York City, the mother of 7-year-old twin girls, builds tea breaks into her busiest days. She finds the ritual as calming as the beverage. “I start relaxing even before I start to drink — at the sound of the kettle, the feel of the cup in my hand,” she says.
Strategy 5: Loosen your electronic leash
Thanks to high-tech gadgets, your kids can reach you 24/7. Knowing where they are and what they are up to? Priceless. But there is a hidden cost. A two-year study of 1,367 working men and women in New York State, two-thirds of them parents, found that all were overburdened by a blurring of the divide between the workplace and home. But while both men and women reported bringing job-related worries home with them, only women felt stress because of home worries spilling over into the workplace.
Researchers speculate that cell phones and pagers are responsible for this blurring of boundaries. “When your kids have a crisis or a relative gets sick, it is usually the women, not the men, who get the call at work,” says Noelle Chesley, a professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and the study’s author. She suggests you take turns with your spouse being “on call” for minor emergencies, and make sure the sitter and the school have his number as well as yours. You may have to retrain the kids, too.
Strategy 6: Reflect on what you value
When your frazzle level is so high you feel yourself spiraling out of control, a quick way to re-center is to remind yourself of what is most important in your life. Researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles, asked 85 people to complete a questionnaire ranking their values from what matters most to what matters least. Then the group was divided. Half the people were asked to talk about their top-ranked values; the other half discussed what mattered least to them.
Afterward, everyone took part in a stress-inducing task (giving a five-minute speech in front of a heckling audience, then counting backward from 2,083 by 13s). People who had reflected on their most cherished values had a lower stress response than those who had discussed matters that did not mean much.
“Affirming your values changes the way you appraise a situation,” says David Creswell, Ph.D., the study’s lead author and a research scientist at UCLA. “In this case, the stressful event became less of a threat and more of a challenge.” He suggests one way to put the research findings to work: In a stressful situation, think about people important to you, and how you have been a good mate, mother, daughter, sister, or friend.
“Affirmations of close relationships are powerful sources to draw on,” Creswell says.
People who do not manage stress well can have headaches, stomach pain, sleeping problems, illness, and depression. You can manage stress by journaling, meditating, exercising, talking to others, or engaging in a hobby.
Stress Management Diet
Stress management can be a powerful tool for wellness. There is evidence that too much pressure is not just a mood killer. People who are under constant stress are more vulnerable to everything from colds to high blood pressure and heart disease. Although there are many ways to cope, one strategy is to eat stress-fighting foods. Read on to learn how a stress management diet can help.
Stress-Busting Foods: How They Work
Foods can fight stress in several ways. Comfort foods, like a bowl of warm oatmeal, actually boost levels of serotonin, a calming brain chemical. Other foods can reduce levels of cortisol and adrenaline, stress hormones that take a toll on the body over time. Finally, a nutritious diet can counteract the impact of stress, by shoring up the immune system and lowering blood pressure. Do you know which foods are stress busters?
All carbs prompt the brain to make more serotonin. For a steady supply of this feel-good chemical, it is best to eat complex carbs, which are digested more slowly. Good choices include whole-grain breakfast cereals, breads, and pastas, as well as old-fashioned oatmeal. Complex carbs can also help you feel balanced by stabilizing blood sugar levels.
Dieticians usually recommend steering clear of simple carbs, which include sweets and soda. But these foods can provide short-term relief of stress-induced irritability. Simple sugars are digested quickly, leading to a spike in serotonin.
Oranges make the list for their wealth of vitamin C. Studies suggest this vitamin can reduce levels of stress hormones while strengthening the immune system. If you have a particularly stressful event coming up, you may want to consider supplements. In one study, blood pressure and cortisol levels returned to normal more quickly when people took 3,000 milligrams of vitamin C before a stressful task.
Popeye never lets stress get the best of him – maybe it is all the magnesium in his spinach. Magnesium helps regulate cortisol levels and tends to get depleted when we are under pressure. Too little magnesium may trigger headaches and fatigue, compounding the effects of stress. One cup of spinach goes a long way toward replenishing magnesium stores. Not a spinach eater? Try some cooked soybeans, or a filet of salmon, also high in magnesium.
To keep cortisol and adrenaline in check, make friends with fatty fish. Omega-3 fatty acids, found in fish like salmon and tuna, can prevent surges in stress hormones and protect against heart disease. For a steady supply, aim to eat three ounces of fatty fish at least twice a week.
Research suggests black tea can help you recover from stressful events more quickly. One study compared people who drank four cups of tea daily for 6 weeks with people who drank a tea-like placebo. The real tea drinkers reported feeling calmer and had lower levels of cortisol after stressful situations. Coffee, on the other hand, can boost levels of cortisol.
Pistachios can soften the impact stress hormones have on the body. Adrenaline raises blood pressure and gets your heart racing when you are under stress. Eating a handful of pistachios every day can lower blood pressure, so it will not spike as high when that adrenaline rush comes.
One of the best ways to reduce high blood pressure is to get enough potassium — and half an avocado has more potassium than a medium-sized banana. In addition, guacamole offers a nutritious alternative when stress has you craving a high-fat treat.
Almonds are chock full of helpful vitamins. There is vitamin E to bolster the immune system, plus a range of B vitamins, which may make the body more resilient during bouts of stress. To get the benefits, snack on a quarter of a cup every day.
Crunchy raw vegetables can fight the effects of stress in a purely mechanical way. Munching celery or carrot sticks helps release a clenched jaw, and that can ward off tension headaches.
Carbs at bedtime can speed the release of serotonin and help you sleep better. Heavy meals before bed can trigger heartburn, so stick to something light like toast and jam.
Another bedtime stress buster is the time-honored glass of warm milk. Researchers have found calcium can reduce muscle spasms and soothe tension, as well as easing anxiety and mood swings linked to PMS. Dieticians typically recommend skim or low-fat milk.
There are many herbal supplements that claim to fight stress. One of the best studied is St. John’s wort, which has shown benefits for people with mild-to-moderate depression. Although more research is needed, the herb also appears to reduce symptoms of anxiety and PMS. There is less data on valerian root, another herb said to have a calming effect.
(Ed’s note:You should perhaps seek medical advice before taking St. John’s Wort with other medication)
De-Stress with Exercise
Besides tweaking your diet, one of the best stress-busting strategies is to start exercising. Aerobic exercise is the most effective, because it increases oxygen circulation and produces endorphins — chemicals that make you feel happy. To get the maximum benefit, aim for 30 minutes of aerobic exercise three to four times a week.
(Ed’s note: Undertaking a new exercise regime should be subject to medical advice.)
Disclaimer: The views of the author of this article are not necessarily the views of the Editor. It in interest of self preservation, readers should seek medical advice before making any additions or changes to their prescriptions or undertaking any strenuous exercise. Without prejudice.
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